People wait to check their names on the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at Goroimari of Kamrup district in the Indian state of Assam on January 1, 2018. Around 13 million people in northeastern India's Assam woke up to uncertainty on January 1 after the release of an official citizenship registry with names of only 19 million of the state's over 32 million residents. The national registry of citizens (NRC) has been in works for years, after strident, decades long demands by many local groups to identify and evict "illegal foreigners" settling in the state. / AFP PHOTO / Kulendu Kalita
People wait to check their names on the first draft of the National Register of Citizens at Goroimari in Kamrup district in the Indian state of Assam on January 1, 2018. Photo: AFP/Kulendu Kalita

Since the final draft of India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) was released in the state of Assam, there has been uproar all over the country – including in the two houses of Parliament. The opposition launched a full attack on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for alleged exclusion of Muslims.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, leader of the All India Trinamool Congress party, has vociferously attacked the process, terming it as a process for non-inclusion of Muslims, Bengalis and Biharis living in Assam. She even sent a party delegation to the state, which was detained at Silchar Airport by the state administration.

All of the criticism is due to non-inclusion of 4 million people in the final draft of the NRC out of the total population of 32 million.

The NRC is a list of Indian citizens of Assam and was first prepared in 1951 based on that year’s census.

When party politics takes over, the main issue to be discussed gets sidetracked, and the case of the NRC  is no different. First of all, the NRC process was initiated on the instructions of the Supreme Court of India, and the court itself is monitoring the whole process of identification of original citizens of India living in the state of Assam. So blaming the country’s ruling party the BJP – which also happens to be the ruling party of Assam – for the issue is not right.

The updating of the NRC is following the principles of the Assam Accord signed in 1985 between the government of India then led by prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and the All Assam Students’ Union. The accord was signed to free Assam from illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Although the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government initiated the updating of the NRC, it later stopped the process. The process was renewed after the Supreme Court’s verdict in 2013. However, it was only when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came to power that the process was given priority.

However, there are some sections within the state and the country who never wanted this process to happen. There were reports from a group of indigenous Assamese Muslims that they were being provoked by an international group against the NRC. But it was Mamata Banerjee’s provocative speech that added fuel to the fire.

Her statement that the NRC was a tool to drive Muslims and Bengali and Bihari Hindus out of Assam and that it would result in “civil war” doesn’t suit her stature, as she herself is a chief minister of a state. The process is for identification of foreigners – the Bangladeshis residing in the state.

It is true that many genuine citizens didn’t feature in the NRC list. But as the state coordinator of the NRC, Prateek Hajela, said, it’s a manual process, so errors couldn’t be ruled out, and it’s only a draft, not the final list. The 4 million citizens whose names didn’t feature will be given a chance to verify themselves – only then would the final list be prepared.

Already, the Supreme Court has ruled that those left out won’t be liable to any action until the final list is prepared. Their names will not be removed from the electoral rolls according to Election Commission of India, as it will take some time to finalize the NRC and the EC has to prepare the rolls by January in preparation for next year’s general elections. So these citizens are not stateless and are not going to detention camps, as rumored by some.

One of the main reasons names were not listed in the NRC is non-verification of documents by many state governments and union territories. Around 570,000 documents were sent for verification and some states including West Bengal, Bihar, Meghalaya, Manipur and Chandigarh returned only 2-7% of the documents after verification.

Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal returned only 6% of the documents after verification. Around 100,000 documents were not verified by her government. As usual, Banerjee chose to train her guns on the BJP, the emerging opposition in her own citadel, by playing the card of the BJP being anti-Bengali. However, the truth is many Bengalis would have found their names on the list had Banerjee’s administration verified those documents sent by the NRC officials.

Other organizations – banks, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the External Affairs Ministry (for passports) and various federal departments – also did not return many files after verification. Only about 40% of verified documents reached the NRC officials in time for the preparation of the final draft.

Another significant reason is some people’s failure to prove their linkages with persons in the legacy data, that is, the collective list of the NRC data of 1951 and electoral rolls up to midnight of March 24, 1971. That’s why there are many cases where members from the same family are not equally listed – some were featured and others were not.

Also, many children didn’t find their names on the list despite their parents being listed. According to Indian law, if the parents are Indian, automatically children gain Indian citizenship. However, because of errors in documents, even minor spelling mistakes, many names didn’t feature.

So there is a one month left for those citizens to claim citizenship by showing their documents, and even after that there is the option of going to the Foreigners’ Tribunal Court.

But one thing is very clear: The state of Assam is very peaceful, with no reports of protests and violence, which indicates that its people are in favor of the NRC’s implementation. People cutting across communities and religions are openly supporting the process and praising Prateek Hajela, the NRC coordinator of the state. Even those people whose names are not in the list are hopeful that once it is finalized their names will be in it.

However, in the political debate one thing is not being discussed: When the verification process is complete, there will be a certain number of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. How will these be dealt with by the government of India? Will the government of Bangladesh be ready to take them back? If Bangladesh declines, what will India do?

But before that, the most important task is to complete the updating of the NRC successfully, and there should be no political blame game related to it.

The writer is an India-based commentator on politics, religion, culture and philosophy and tweets @sagarneelsinha.